As a parent, it can be concerning if your child seems to work hard to get through every word she reads. She might slowly sound out each word on a page. Or she might struggle to remember the sounds certain letters make. She may make a guess when she comes to a difficult word. These are common behaviors as kids are learning to read.
But if your child seems frustrated, or if she isn’t showing signs of improving over time, she may have a problem with what’s called reading fluency. This is the term teachers use for being able to read quickly and accurately. This term also includes expressing emotion when reading out loud. A fluent reader will inject some dramatic flair when reading a line like “Look out!”
Reading fluency comes more easily to some kids than to others. Fluency problems are sometimes linked to poor phonemic awareness. This is the term for identifying and working with each of the sounds that are used in spoken words.
For example, many kindergartners can tell just by listening that the words cat and can start with the same sound. Kids this age typically can also pick out the sounds “c,” “a” and “t” in the word cat.
Phonemic awareness is essential for beginning readers. That’s because readers have to learn to associate written letters with specific sounds. Then they have to blend these sounds together to read words. This process of sounding out words is called decoding.
Decoding words is an important skill for beginning readers. But to get faster at reading, children need to get to a point where they can recognize whole words in an instant without having to sound them out. Teachers refer to these words as sight words.
Going from sounding out words to recognizing them by sight takes practice. One of the best ways to get children to practice reading is to give them books at their level as often as possible. Kids who struggle with decoding often resist reading. And the less often they read, the harder it is for them to recognize words by sight.
One of the best things you can do as a parent is to offer encouragement and look for ways to keep reading fun. Choose books that are at your child’s reading level and that involve topics or characters that interest her. It’s OK if she likes to read books over and over again. Take turns reading or read out loud together. It’s also good to try to read her a story at a set time every day. Carving out some special time together may help her develop a love of stories, which is the very best motivator for learning to read.
Reading together every day will also give you opportunities to teach her new words. Keep in mind that it will be easier for your child to read a word if she knows what it means. Exposing her to new books and new words that are at her reading level will help her develop a larger vocabulary. And knowing more words can help her read more fluently.
As you’re reading together, remember that kids sometimes look at the first few sounds of a word and then guess at the rest. This kind of guessing is common for some beginning readers. Be patient and encourage your child to try and sound out the whole word instead of guessing.
Sometimes kids who have difficulty reading just need a little more help in the classroom or practice at home. Not all children learn to read at the same rate or in the same way. But if your child doesn’t make progress with this kind of support, you might be seeing signs of dyslexia or of another kind of learning issue.
Dyslexia is caused by differences in the way the brain processes language. It tends to run in families. It’s also worth noting that kids with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely than kids who don’t have ADHD to have dyslexia. ADHD can make it harder for kids to concentrate on what they’re reading.
You may also want to read about visual processing issues and auditory processing disorder. Processing refers to how the brain makes sense of information it takes in. Fluent reading depends on the ability of the brain’s vision centers to make sense of what the eyes see. This is called visual processing.
Reading also involves the brain’s auditory centers to make sense of the sounds in words. This is called auditory processing. When the brain needs extra time to process information, it may slow a child’s reading rate and accuracy.
If you suspect that your child may have a learning or attention issue, don’t hesitate to talk to her doctor or teacher. They can help you decide if a formal evaluation is needed. Partnering with your child’s school can make it easier to get her the help she needs to succeed.